Thunder Track and the Wonder of Queen’s Quay

Today’s jaunt to the St. Lawrence Market took me on a small detour to see the revamped Queen’s Quay complete with bicycle lanes, flowers and grass.  There are some great photos by Peter Hud here.

If we believe the prophets of doom who claim to be traffic engineers in these parts, those photos should be full of fire and brimstone as the wrathful traffic gods rain down on the lost roadspace.  At least there should be a lot of cars.  Strangely not.  A few errant tourists managed to drive east along the transit right-of-way while I was there, but otherwise the calm morning was broken only by sounds of people strolling by, bicycles whirring by and, oh yes, streetcars roaring by.

The original Harbourfront line pre-dates the TTC’s adoption of resilient trackbeds that damp vibration and prevent the track from becoming corrugated.  Think of a dirt road in the country.  The bumps are big and spaced out corresponding to the speed at which car and truck suspensions vibrate and the speed of traffic.  On railways, the wheels bounce at a higher frequency but not as far, and you get small ridges in the head of the rails.  This causes the roar you hear when streetcars pass by on older track.

Once upon a time, the TTC had rail grinding cars that drove around the city to grind the corrugations off of the rails, but the last of those bit the dust years ago.  The resilient track doesn’t need to be ground, but we still have some of the old junk left in operation.  For a really good example, just ride south on Spadina across King and compare the track noise north of King to that of the older track south of King.

Other examples of this track can be found on Roncesvalles and on King east to around Dowling.  There are also corrugations on the old track on St. Clair, Dundas and Fleet, but the slow orders keep the cars from ever going fast enough to make much noise.  St. Clair will be rebuilt from Vaughan east this year, Fleet Street in the fall, and Dundas (at least part of it) in 2007/08 depending on how squeezed the capital budget turns out to be.  The rest of the system with regular service has already been rebuilt and track noise is no longer an issue.

This brings me back to Queen’s Quay.  It’s no wonder that some local residents fear for the noise that an LRT east of Bay will bring to their community when they have only the noisy track west of Bay as an example.  This track is 16 years old now, and probably won’t be replaced for another five years although some spot repairs have already been necessary.  Track set directly in concrete with no rubber padding tends to make the road disintegrate (even on private right-of-way) because the vibrations slowly but surely damage the concrete, water gets in and freezes, and the concrete falls apart.  That’s what happened on a large scale on streets like St. Clair and Dundas with their forests of slow orders.

The vibration from corrugations accelerates the roadway’s disintegration and this shows us one of those wonderful penny-wise, pound-foolish lessons:  build good track and not only is it quiet and friendly to the neighbourhood, but it will last longer.  This is a case where the TTC finally got it right (thanks to David Gunn and his head of streetcar track, Jim Teeple), but it also shows how long it takes to recover from bad infrastructure design.

Even with the noisy streetcars, Queen’s Quay is beautiful to look at with this simplest of implementations.  Chatting with friends this morning, we wondered why this didn’t take four years of proposals, Terms of Reference meetings, Environmental Assessments, and jockeying with the Works Department to get it built.  We need more of these “instant” implementations to prove that the world does not end when we take space away from cars.

The next step is a permanent implementation on Queen’s Quay West next year, and inclusion of this design as the basis for Queen’s Quay East in the waterfront planning now underway.  Banish the 100+ foot wide arterials masquerading as boulevards, and give us a simple, local road and transit with the plants and the grass close to the people.

5 thoughts on “Thunder Track and the Wonder of Queen’s Quay

  1. I biked down to Queen’s Quay around noon today. To be honest, the setup doesn’t add much appeal to the area – especially for cyclists. It is marginally easier to get from E-W or W-E – but it’s still very much of a stop and go proposition.

    Despite the closure of lanes for a short stretch, there are still major establishments that require road access to be open to remain viable (e.g. Harbour Sqaure, Westin, etc.) There were police officers directing movement at these intersections. In addition, there was no good demarcation of bike lane vs. pedestrian space.

    The fully closed E-bound lanes were nice – but, other than a few cyclists, there was no one around. (There was a hideous bike sculpture at the ‘gateway’.)

    At the West end of the closed section, cyclists have to switch to the North side when going West. This involved a 4 minute wait for all the different traffic light phases.

    The area around Queen’s Quay was busy as usual – which from what I can tell are Torontonians and tourists headed for the Islands in 95% of cases. (There were several tour buses loading and unloading as I went by each time. There were also a number of tourist buses waiting in traffic to unload.)

    If the goal is to close lanes of traffic, I guess the design meets its objective. Other than that, I’ll stick to cycling on the Leslie St. Spit. (The Lower Don Trail can’t be accessed this year thanks to another “waterfront” project.)

    I’d prefer a bike path on the actual waterfront. Toronto has been building into the water for almost as long as its existed. Why not take another 6 feet?


  2. Though I agree that the temporary bike link from Jarvis to Spadina through Harbourfront is not perfect, it still gives one a good idea of what COULD happen. At the western end of the temporary path at the bottom of Spadina there is, unfortunately, a one-way east If/when a permanent bike link is created I hope it will not have much or any shared bike lane – these sshared lanes are not really much better than no lane at all as they tend to give one a false sense of security!

    As we live between Jarvis and Sherbourne my parter and I normally just cycle towards the east (Beaches, Tommy Thompson Park, Cherry Beach etc) and it was fun yesterday to be able to go, FAIRLY safely, to the west for a change.


  3. Speaking of noisy rail, why do we still have that ear-piercing high-pitched wheel squeal when streetcars move through Union station platform?  New track was recently installed and an automatic rail greaser is pumping grease near the platform entrance; in addition new track-level water injectors were installed but the water has not been turned on.  In previous years water lubrication eliminated wheel squeal.

    My guess is that the curved rail guage is slightly “off spec” and is causing increased friction and pressure on the rail shoulder which water should resolve.  For the dozens of streetcar drivers and the thousands of customers in Union station each day having to endure that noise, please Jim Teeple (head of TTC streetcar way dept.) take one minute to turn on the water valve.

    Steve:  I think that there are two things at work here.

    First off, the wheel lubricators are almost certainly challenged by the amount they have to deposit on wheels at the start of the loop to last all the way round to the other side.  I believe that each new lubricator goes through an adjustment stage as they try to figure out the right setting.  It’s odd to also see the water lubrication system because the intent was that this be replaced.  This may be one of the “lost projects” that seem to pop up all around the TTC from time to time.

    As for the squeal from the new rail, there is always a period (yes this one has gone on rather a long time) where new curves have to wear in.  Given the level of service at this loop, this should have happened a long time ago.

    One side note:  It’s intriguing when a PCC visits Union or Spadina Stations on a charter because these cars have a different wheel profile, and the curves are not worn in for them.  If you think the CLRVs make a lot of noise, you should hear a PCC which actually has quieter wheels on the straightaways.


  4. Re: Quay to the City

    The eastbound lanes — on the south side of the streetcar right of way — have been taken out for vehicle use.  So, how do cars and trucks get into the properties on the south side of Queen’s Quay?

    Steve:  Part of the permanent redesign includes figuring out how to manage vehicle access.  The whole business of where vehicles cross the streetcar tracks will have to be rethought along with the operation of the traffic lights.  We may actually get better transit priority out of this because there will be fewer conflicting movements.

    (From Christopher’s Hume’s column, I know that there are a number of paid-duty police officers involved. I doubt that this would continue once this becomes permanent.)

    Steve:  I am not thrilled with the excessive number of paid duty officers.  Fully one quarter of the cost of this trial is the cost of the police to manage it.

    West of Spadina, Queen’s Quay is two lanes but with one on either side of the right of way.  Maybe they should consider this configuration for east of Spadina instead.  You would still remove two lanes from vehicle use although you wouldn’t get two adjacent lanes as under the current setup.

    Steve:  The whole idea is to expand the pedestrian/bicycle area on the south side of Queen’s Quay.  Reclaiming a lane on the north side doesn’t do the same thing.  Also, if we were down to one lane each way we would be, effectively, closing the street fronm a capacity point of view.  Even we rabid transit activists have to think about the poor motorists occasionally.


  5. I’d like to see some brainstorming around the notion of reclaiming the parking lots south of Queens Quay as public space and relocating an equivalent number of parking spots in lots or new structures north of Queens Quay, effectively removing the turn management issue and providing a continuous, unbroken pedestrian/cyclist corridor.

    Just a thought.


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